On Tunnels, Trains, and the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux


Whenever I say that my brain needs a lot of time to process information, people think I’m kidding. I’m not. “Dress me slowly for I am in a hurry,” said Napoleon Bonaparte; and amusing though it may sound, it’s one of the most reasonable things I’ve ever heard. In my teens I was rebellious, in my twenties I was impulsive, in my thirties I’m trying to master the art of exercising good judgment, and that requires time to think. So on the way back from Bordeaux I thought long and hard about the Third IAPTI Conference. I tried to remember every single person I met there, what we talked about, what their interests were, and what I learned from or about them.

In The Tunnel (Penguin Classics), Ernesto Sabato briefly works his way into what is known to some lovers of literature and philosophy as the “theory of the tunnels” by way of several relatively short passages. In one of those passages, the main character is on a train and looks out the window onto someone’s backyard. At the precise moment when he looks in that direction, a woman steps out of her house, onto her yard, and looks at the train, perhaps even at him. The encounter lasts only a few seconds, but our hero realizes at that moment that if the train had passed that particular place a few seconds sooner or a few seconds later, if he had not been looking out the window or she at the train, their existence would have remained unknown to each other forever. Later in that book, Sabato invites us to think of our own individual lives as tunnels with small windows from which we view, for brief moments, other tunnels. Each human interaction or meaningful encounter happens only when we stop and look out our own window and into someone else’s.

Though I read the book for the first time in my early teens and have not re-read it in a very long time, this idea has stuck with me throughout my entire life. I can’t help but think about it whenever I take a subway or a bus; and, in France, while looking out the window of the TGV connecting Paris and Bordeaux, I couldn’t help but hope someone would step out of their home on the precise moment that my train rode by and I was looking out the window. It didn’t happen, sadly, but I did see a goat that appeared somewhat interested in my train. So I’m hoping it was an existentialist goat and that now we have peaked into each other’s tunnels and are forever aware of each other’s existence.

My point though with all this ranting about tunnels and the existentialist goat is that IAPTI was to me in Bordeaux what Gare de Nord was to me in Paris: a powerful station connecting several subways to several trains all coming from and going in different directions, but with ultimately the same goal of getting people where they want or need to go. I know when most people go to Paris they are probably fascinated by the Eiffel Tower, the museums, the cafés, the language, the culture, and infinite amount of sheer awesomeness that is Paris. And it’s not that I didn’t love or appreciate all of that, but what really captivated my fascination and imagination was Gare de Nord. People from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, from all walks of life, united in one place, walking to and from, getting here and there in the middle of this magical place called Paris via this vast station called Gare de Nord. Sometimes they’d stop and interact in more or less meaningful ways, but even those interactions were somehow constricted to the ultimate goal of getting somewhere in Paris.

Similarly, at the Conference, I encountered people from all over the world, speaking all sorts of languages, from all walks of life, united in one place, walking to and from, getting here and there in the middle of this magical place called Bordeaux via this vast station called IAPTI. Of course my analogy is somewhat imperfect: in Bordeaux almost every interaction was rich and meaningful in its own way. So now that I am fully aware of the existence of all these wonderful people that I met, it seems the next logical step is to decode the meaning of our interactions.

Impressed though I was by Sabato’s tunnel idea in my teens, there’s a part of his thesis I reject: tunnels are inflexible, allowing you to move in only two directions. Perhaps Sabato viewed life with this rigidity. Perhaps to him once you’re on a certain track, you either move forward or backwards, but never to the sides, never in other directions. Or perhaps his tunnels are a metaphor for our journey toward our inevitable end. I can live with the latter, but though the end is certain, the path is not. I refuse to let my existence be reduced to a mere walk down a rigid tunnel. I refuse to see the windows as tiny (or even have walls on which to place windows in the first place), and though I can’t deny that I am indeed walking the time-space continuum toward a state of non-existence, in the meantime, while I am in every possible sense of the verb to be, I can go wherever I please both physically and mentally. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tunnel and the path doesn’t necessarily have to be straight. I can tear down walls, I can let people in, I can even peak into their existence as much as they let me for as long as they let me, and our paths don’t just meet at complex stations. We are free to make of our existence whatever we want it to be and to meet again anywhere, anytime.

Aurora, Attila, Lorena, and others at IAPTI make of their existence the exemplary cause of raising the bar in benefit of translators and interpreters everywhere. Marta Stelmaszak makes of her existence an example of generosity by sharing everything she knows about business and helping others succeed. Maya Hess and Linda Fitchett from Red-T make of their existence the cause of helping interpreters in conflict zones get on the international agenda (something I will be writing a lot more about soon). Cécile Deniard from CEATL leads an organization that advocates for literary translators throughout Europe. And these are just a few examples of the quality human beings that make up IAPTI and made the 13 hour flight and 4 hour train ride worth every second.

Today, inspired by last week’s experience, I think perhaps it’s time to reflect upon how these interactions have changed my existence for the better. Where I will go from here is (fortunately) a mystery to me at this point, but what I do know is that after crossing this station, I will never be the same: suddenly my path is brighter, greener, sunnier, and filled with more inspiration than ever before; and I’m forever grateful to the people at IAPTI that made that possible.

6 thoughts on “On Tunnels, Trains, and the Third IAPTI Conference in Bordeaux

  1. Catherine V. Howard says:

    Paula, we are so lucky to have you enter into the T&I blogging scene…. your posts are always so thoughtful, surprising, and idiosyncratic in the best sense. I love how you take Sabato’s ideas here, intertwining them with the IAPTI conference, the physical trip to and from it, and notions about the people we encounter (or don’t) over the years. What a treat to read it!

    It was a true joy to finally meet you, the person behind these intriguing posts, at the conference — here’s to many more!


  2. What an insightful and brilliant post, Paula!
    I agree with every word Catherine said and would add yourself to that last but one paragraph. Your presentation was one of my favorites and really touched me.
    Thanks a lot for your amazing contribution to our community! I’m glad I was able to meet you in person, even if for only a few seconds. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you so much, Carol! And thanks for your feedback on my presentation. I really enjoyed meeting you too, though very briefly, at the dinner party. I wish we would have had a chance to talk more, but I’m sure we’ll get to know each other better at the next conference. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Paula, for sharing your impressions of the conference in this wonderful post.

    “…suddenly my path is brighter, greener, sunnier, and filled with more inspiration than ever before; and I’m forever grateful to the people at IAPTI that made that possible.”

    I suppose most of us feel like the same way, even if we are not able to express it so poetically 😉

    Liked by 1 person

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